Friday, November 11, 2011

There are No Writers

With many occupations, you can say, "I'm a ____," because you received some certification. Indeed, the most important professions require rigorous training and state-level licensing.

Not so with writers. (Or literary agents.) Anyone can hang out the proverbial shingle and declare, "I am a writer." Perversely, there are few milestones that unambiguously identify one as a writer: even hitting the New York Times Bestsellers List only proves that you have written.

I'm beginning to believe there are no writers.

If you've been patient to this point, you might now object that there are obviously a great many writers. Millions of books are published each year. Millions of people are employed in jobs whose practical output is words on paper (or screens). Beyond that, nearly every citizen of the literate world strings at least a few words into sentences each day.

All true. And yet most of this vast army of writers write in the service of some other purpose. Just as nearly every scientist uses mathematics to do their work but they don't call themselves mathematicians, the majority of people who write don't call themselves, "writers."

So what does it mean to be a writer?

In the world of commercial publishing, the only writers who matter are the ones who have enough of a following that every book they release is a guaranteed bestseller.

In the world of the literati, the only writers who matter are the ones (usually dead) who have produced the masterworks that they endlessly discuss.

It's pretty slim pickings if you're looking for a role model.

Which is precisely the point.

Writers are like curry: it's an approach to preparing the food, not a particular dish. There is no single approved model of success or failure as a writer. Rather, like an entrepreneur, there's a world of opportunity and any number of creative ways to take advantage of those opportunities.

Unlike other professions, where the pathway to achievement is clearly marked, writers have a blank page.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

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